Charles Saunders's Imaro doesn't appear in Appendix N of the AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide, but I like to think that's only because the novel didn't appear until 1981, two years after the DMG was first published (though, to be fair, its titular character first appeared in Dark Fantasy in 1974 and a year later in the very first Year's Best Fantasy Stories). That's a pity, because Imaro and its sequels are remarkable books, at once thoroughly steeped in the traditions of pulp fantasy and original creations that transcend and transform the genre in ways that recall Michael Moorcock's tales of Elric. By this, I don't mean to imply any dramatic, let alone thematic, connection between the writings of these two authors. Rather, it's that both Saunders and Moorcock turn critical eyes on the tropes of pulp fantasy in ways that only writers who understand and love the genre, warts and all, could do. Saunders isn't an ignorant young Turk out to prove himself by denigrating his pulp fantasy elders, but instead a writer who clearly appreciates them, even as his own unique vision is at least in part a corrective to what he sees as their weaknesses.
Though originally billed as "The Epic Novel of a Black Tarzan," which led to the delay in its publication because of a lawsuit by the estate of Edgar Rice Burroughs, I think it's the writings of Robert E. Howard that cast the longest shadows over Imaro. Saunders's Nyumbani is a close cousin of REH's Hyborian Age, being a fantastical Africa that draws equally from history and myth to create an imaginary world that artfully mimics the depth and texture of reality. Reading through Imaro, one is immediately struck by the opportunities pulp fantasy has lost over the years by not turning its gaze more readily upon non-European settings for its inspirations. It would be a gross over-simplification to call Imaro a "black Conan" as some have done, not least because Imaro's motivations and ultimate destiny are far more inward-directed than are those of the Cimmerian. Nevertheless, it's hard not to compare him to Howard's creation, as Imaro is one of the few swords-and-sorcery characters to match -- and perhaps exceed -- the complexity of his barbarian predecessor.
Indeed, Saunders excels at writing characters who feel like people rather than caricatures and it's here, I think, where Imaro shines brightest and offers the most strident critique of the genre of which it's a part. Saunders isn't content to paint with broad strokes, particularly when it comes to entire peoples and societies. Nyumbani is not only beautifully drawn, but diverse and variegated. Its inhabitants are similarly diverse and well realized, in stark contrast to the more stylized approach favored by many other pulp fantasy tales. Reading Imaro, one is often subtly reminded of just how often even writers as talented as Howard relied upon stereotypes to do the heavy lifting in their characterization. And because the reminders are subtle, one never feels as if Imaro was written solely to criticize or make a point. The novel isn't a parody or a satire of the genre but rather an unapologetic illustration of its under-used potential, not to mention a celebration of its primal appeal.
If it sounds like I'm gushing over Imaro, it's because I am. I never read this novel or its sequels back in the day and I doubt I would have appreciated them even if I had. Having filled in this gap in my pulp fantasy education, I can't help but imagine many "what if?" scenarios in which Saunders's stories had become more widely read and influential. Had this occurred, it's possible that swords-and-sorcery might have renewed itself, remaining vital and energetic until the present day. Fortunately, the novel and its sequels have been reprinted and are available once again. Likewise, Saunders has written another novel set in Nyumbani, about the warrior-woman Dossouye, and is working on two more novels in the saga of Imaro. If you've never had the opportunity to do so before, there's no better time to delve into the adventures of Imaro than right now.